Ostensibly a documentary on the art, passion, and privileged life of famed Russian actor and singer Fyodor Chaliapin who emigrated to Europe after the dissolution of the Russian monarchy, and whose surviving family embarked on a long-awaited homecoming after a 60 year absence to their home in glasnost-era, market economy Russia, Petersburg Elegy is a fascinating, albeit tediously belabored chronicle of the transience of history. Interchanging color and monochromatic film and using organic, long take static shots reminiscent of Chantal Akerman’s 1970s documentaries (particularly Hotel Monterey and News from Home), but pushed to near intolerable viewing extremes with maddeningly hyperextended, lingering dead space sequences of the now-elderly Chaliapin children sitting motionless in the spiritless, empty rooms of their St. Petersburg home, Aleksandr Sokurov provides an early glimpse of what would prove to be a recurring element in his nonfiction oeuvre: the ethereal imagery of corporeal souls inhabiting real space and time (most recently explored in Russian Ark). By contrasting the stasis and inertia of the once-vibrant Chaliapin children in visible physical decline to the chaotic bustle of urban life in modern-day Russia, Sokurov creates an intriguing portrait of obsolete, temporal relics left in the wake of a profoundly changing and turbulent Russian history.
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